Evangelism Integrity and the Good Lie

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Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices. Colossians 3.9 (NIV)

 

On the way back from Asia, I saw the touching movie starring Reese Witherspoon called The Good Lie. This movie retells the story about the Sudanese lost boys from the civil war who got their new start in the US. It’s a very touching movie. The name of the movie comes from the final scene where one of the characters uses a new identity to get someone who saved his life back at the refugee camp (don’t want to spoil the story too much) while going back and staying at the camp as a trained physician from the US. This is the good lie. I suppose it is for the greater good of the movie.

 

This week also rings in the news that the book The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven turns out to be a lie all along. At the center of the controversy is Alex Malarkey who suffered a traumatic injury from an accident and had claimed that he visited heaven in the process. The book became a bestseller but the publisher Tyndale House has decided to pull the books. Yet, we find booksellers being quite slow to pull the books off the shelves. One such example is Lifeway who continues to ignore the plea of Alex and his family. In fact, with Alex’s mom pleading as far as 2012, it takes three years for the evangelical publishing conscience to set in (Mark Driscoll’s plagiarized books, anyone?) and pull the book.  After this publicity flop, I’m sure Lifeway will eventually pull the books off and claim ignorance. In fact, I bet Lifeway will drag its feet as far as it can in order to get more sales before finally pulling.  The bottom line is the Lord.  Why do I say this? It’s because evangelicals are so predictable. They would go all the way, even to the extent of telling lies and half-truths, for the gospel (and a few dollars more).

 

In this situation, we should learn something from Alex who bravely came forward to recant his testimony. I propose that the problem is not merely lying. A certain culture within evangelicalism produces lies like this. It’s the zealous lust for the sensational. We long for our next celebrity for the sake of evangelism rather than letting our integrity and healthy relationships be the unspoken testimony of our faith. As I have written previously, our lust (even worship) of celebrities and the sensational is killing us. If you don’t believe me, just read the comments on my blog on Jay Chou and all the people defending this culture. Once again, this culture fails us, the world, and people like Alex.

 

What I find most interesting is this. We have profited from lies for a long time. In Hong Kong, where I taught for close to three years, we had the fraudulent Noah’s Ark Ministry that is backed not only by local pastors but also by pastors in N America and Southeast Asia that built this money spinning machine on nothing but speculations over a few pieces of wood. When I spoke out against it, people were concerned that my outspokenness has indeed damaged the cause of the gospel. Those who enabled lies such as the Noah’s Ark Ministry supporters have still not come out to recant their misplaced support. Not even one!  Especially guilty are the church leaders who pretend nothing has happened at all.  Why? It is because business must go on! Religion is big business.

 

Therein lies our problem. Evangelical celebrity worship and sensationalism (i.e. the next big story) are big business. Lifeway can stand to lose a lot of money, but at least Alex recanted. His honesty shames many Christian leaders in fact. Alex’s spiritual growth serves to remind many Christian leaders that being in the business of evangelicalism can indeed stunt your spiritual maturity. When profit and reputations are involved, spiritual maturity goes into the rubbish bin.

 

In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he called lying something that belongs to the old man, the older lifestyle and identity. We aren’t talking about the complicated ethical case of Rahab and the spies here. We’re talking about a simple bankruptcy of integrity. If the lies belong to the old identity (identity before knowing Christ), isn’t the business, this sham of religion, also something that belongs to the old identity. Essentially, the evangelical faith has, at times, become a Christ-less and godless religion because business must go on.

 

 

Is modern evangelism at all cost a culture of lies? Is it even something from the dark side? I think we are at a critical juncture of our Christian history to demand an answer to these questions from our Christian businesses and church leaders. If the question is “yes”, what should we do about it? I think the answer is clear. In such a case, this is not a good life.  It’s a bad lie in the clothing of the gospel which is no gospel at all.  The only question left would be this.  When will modern evangelicalism find its collectively lost conscience?

 

PS: I’ve been told that the Elim Bookstore in Asian among many other stores also carry this book. How they respond will demonstrate also the conscience of the Asian churches.

Victim Switching Prayers Must Stop!: Luke 18.1-8 and Call for Order

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The Parable of the Persistent Widow

18 Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

“For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”

And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” Luke 18.1-8 NIV

 

 

I continue in my commentary on Luke, and Luke 18.1-8 addresses the frequent call for harmony among HK Christian leadership.   There have been numerous published prayers calling for God to help end the chaos that is Occupy HK. Luke 18.1-8 gives the perfect solution.

 

In the first parable, the parable of the unjust judge, Jesus talked about praying always and not giving up. The reason why the disciples shouldn’t give up is simple: God is infinitely better than the judge. The parable itself is telling in understanding the realistic view Jesus took of the lack of social justice in his day. Jesus first described the judge as someone who neither feared God nor cared about humans in Luke 18.2. Then, Jesus called him outright “unjust” in Luke 18.6, a word describing an evil person.

 

How did the judge express his own evil though? The judge himself showed his own evil by saying that the poor widow had worn him out in Luke 18.5. The word “wearing out” actually means something like “beating up”. As I wrote this, Manny Pacquiao had defended his boxing title WBO welterweight championship belt in Macau by knocking down his opponent 6 times. Shockingly, his opponent’s trainer had such a crazy imagination that he told his opponent that he was doing quite well and that he was on course to beating Manny. That’s taking reality and turning it into fantasy. It is nothing better than some unjust HK police shouting, “Do not charge” while taking batons to the heads of the retreating protesters. Such an upside down imagination does no one any good. In the same way, the poor widow was the one beaten up by life, but this judge who oppressed imagined himself to be beaten up. He imagined himself to be the victim rather than oppressor. Yet, Jesus didn’t condemn her for her not giving up. In fact, Jesus saw her action as exemplary.

 

There’re ethical implications to this parable in light of the HK situation. When Jesus came to preach the gospel to the poor, many HK churches and other church circles preach the very opposite as the message of the Advent.  Many churches and Christian leaders often denounced the protesters for beating up the HK system and making it worse. Many such protesters are the ones directly affected by the unjust system. Many young people will not get good employment or find affordable housing even after working hard in their university course work. They aren’t the ones doing the beating up. Their cries have reached the international community. There’s no guarantee of success, but they fight on. They would not give up. If Jesus were to give a commentary on society, he could well use the HK protest as an example. What the evil judge did above was switching himself from the oppressor to a victim. It is interesting when the accusatory prayer is directed at the protesters, the person doing the prayer is just like the evil judge. Victim switching before God is an extreme evil that needs to be eradicated from the church because it goes directly against the message of both the Incarnation and the Crucifixion.  It turns the Word incarnate upside down and turns the cross into an amusement ride in the theme park.

 

We notice that Jesus not only talked about the unjust judge, but he also talked about God who loves His children. The way Jesus taught prayer is linked with the final hope of the day of the Son of Man in Luke 18.8. Prayer was the means by which Jesus’ followers expressed their faith of the hope. Yet, we can’t fail to see that Jesus didn’t fail to denounce injustice in his parable while encouraging his followers to pray. In other words, it is highly unbiblical to ignore injustice while relying on some irrelevant prayer that is only of rapturous heavenly good with no earthly relevance. A proclamation against injustice is equally important as a prayer for future hope. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. Discussion about unity is a total waste of time when we don’t discuss the idea of justice.  Call for prayer is equally a waste of time when the discussion of justice does not take place.  It is high time that people who advocate prayer as the ONLY solution to stop making our faith such a mockery to both society and thoughtful Christians. It is also hight time that Christians stop switching victims in prayer. Those of us who bother to think about the real meaning of prayer are tired of such evil prayers.

 

When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?

Ministerial Priorities: Network or Lockdown?

I’ve been asked by many this question, “What makes a good pastor?”  This is a hard question to answer because it depends on your definition of “good” and “pastor.”  I can make some observations though.

I’ve seen two kinds of pastors lately.  I’ve seen those who network well and are making a name for themselves, and I’ve seen those who faithfully work within the church but do not network.  The dichotomy between two styles is just this obvious.  Which one is best?

The former has some advantages in that they can become quite famous very quickly.  This happens for many who have networked themselves into speaking in important conferences, writing in important magazines and hooking up with influential groups.  Their advantage, when examined, is inadvertent marketing success.  The disadvantage however can outweigh advantages because networking can be endless and can occupy hours upon hours of work time.  Since all of us only have 24/7 equally, something has got to give.  Often, family time, sermon preparation and even pastoral visits can take a backseat.  I’ve known of one case where the church administration has suffered tremendously because of the networking preoccupation of the senior pastor. One elder remarked in frustration, “If he wants to go out and speak so much, he should just freelance like you.”  My reply of course is, “You guys tolerate him.  Freelancing does not make good money and he knows it.  You guys have provided the perfect setting for him to freelancing while taking up a stable salary.” I’ve heard the preaching of one particular networking pastor. He clearly does not do enough sermon preparation.

Let me address the second group, the pastors who focus solely on their own flock and their own churches.  These pastors have great advantages as well.  Their work schedule is very regimented.  They tend to be loved by the flock. Their preaching often are very solid.   They are often not the most famous speakers, but they sure do a great job when they have to preach.  They also suffer from the lack of support from the outside though.  Many such pastors are in charge of smaller or medium size churches.  They haven’t exchanged enough ideas to grow their churches creatively because they lack outside connection.  Often, if their churches are not denominational, their preaching also suffers because they use limited resources without finding out what else is out there.  The same pastors are often hesitant or even suspicious of outside speakers simply because they hardly know the good ones from the bad.  They’re often overworked.

Is there a balance between a network approach and the lockdown approach to ministry? I think there is.  When I look at one model minister, the apostle Paul, he was a man with many networks.  He was also a solid biblical teacher.  Rarely has the history of the church been blessed with someone as gifted as he.  What is the key to striking the balance?

For the network pastor, someone needs to help him to do an honest evaluation in terms of how many hours he needs to do an adequate job in sermon preparation and pastoral care along with church administration to make sure the flock is taken care of and then do the networking as the lowest priority.  I’ve seen a few who have networked so much that their preaching has drastically gotten worse than even when they first graduated from seminary, if such a scenario is even possible (they weren’t great preachers to begin with when they graduated).  Networking should be the byproduct not the main stable of their ministry.

For the lockdown pastor, they also need people around them to keep them accountable in terms of what is reasonable time spent on sermon preparation, pastoral visits and church administration.  He too needs to find the leftover time to network.  In order to determine what leftover time he has, we need to ask hard questions such as these. Does the minister really need to visit every healthy member at least once every two years? Is the minister getting adequate resources to better himself in his preaching?  Is he spending enough time building up his own family?  Is the church motivating enough volunteers to help him accomplish his tasks?  Someone in leadership needs to ask these questions because all these questions affect the long-term health of the church.

In other words, when we are faced with such a question about what makes a good pastor, we need a whole other set of questions before we can come to an adequate conclusion.  The pastor can’t function by himself.  He needs people around him to help him to become better. In a sense, the church leadership often determines whether the pastor ultimately would grow into a good or bad pastor.  The focal questions I ask above points to one key question: does the pastor really care about the overall health of his flock?

Luke’s Story against the Civic Moralist: Reflection on Luke 13.1-9

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Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilatehad mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

“‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”

Luke 13.1-9 (NIV)

 

I’ve blogged about Luke 13.1-9 before. I think this passage can use a few more comments, now that the Umbrella Movement in HK and Ferguson protest in Missouri are largely over.

 

There’s an assumption by many who sound much like those talking to Jesus in Luke 13.1. Jesus’ answer “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?” Jesus’ question probed into their thinking that indeed, those who suffered for their disobedience to the Roman government were indeed morally worse off than all the others. Many would congratulate themselves saying, “We don’t disobey our government.” Some would even feel gleeful in protesters being beaten both here in the US or overseas in HK.

 

To give a short background to Galilee, it was not primarily a place where peace reigned.  Galilee had its own revolutionaries and militia groups of varying political agenda.  Jesus taught there in Galilee, but the place was not an ancient classroom.   It was a place of radical ideas at time.  In fact, the 70 CE revolt in Jerusalem had influence from Galilee militants.  The Gospels never talked much about it because this background was very familiar to the audience.  Those who are interested can go read Josephus’ account on how Galilee was, given the fact that he was from Galilee himself.

 

Like many modern civic moralists everywhere, the interlocutors of Jesus here held a very high view of those who lived comfortably simply because they’re more obedient to the Roman government. In fact, obedience to civic authorities seems to be the measurement of one’s moral ethics within the story. When looking at both protests here in the US (mostly race-based) and in HK (mostly based on the search for democracy), Jesus’ interlocutors have parallel to today’s world. Many also assume that being a good citizen of this world is the mark of high morals and good Christian conduct. Jesus spoke against such a moralistic attitude. This was not kingdom ethics, no more than being a good citizen being equated to being a good Christian.

 

Instead of letting these interlocutors focus on the problems of others, Jesus told them to focus on their own problem by a parable. It’s basically a parable about bearing fruit in Luke 13.6-9. The Greek sentence in Luke 13.9 is enlightening in that the two conditions of bearing fruit and not bearing fruit were expressed differently. Jesus only expressed hypothetically about bearing fruit (in an expression Greek scholars called the third-class condition) but expressed the fruitlessness realistically (in an expression Greek scholars called the first-class condition). Why did Luke record Jesus in this way?

 

The answer is simple. Jesus didn’t expect most of these civic moralists to bear fruit or do good works such as feeding the poor (a point I already made in my previous blog), but that they would carry on being very happy about their own fruitless self-righteousness.   The lesson here by Luke is that once we get into a self-righteous mood about our civic moralism, it’s nearly impossible to bear real fruit. That’s the harsh reality of Jesus’ day, and that may be the harsh reality of our modern faith community. Self satisfaction is almost an incurable disease of the faith community and its manifestation would cause the faith community to be utterly useless like a tree that’s chopped down.

The Great Commission in the Modern Age: Reaching “Nations”?

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18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28.28-20 NIV

Matthew 28.18-20 is often called the Great Commission.  The interpretation usually has to do with preaching the gospel and so on. Those who are a little more sophisticated are prone to point out that the main idea has to do with making disciples with the steps to go, baptist and teach.  These are all solid ideas but what does it mean for us today.

“Nations” doesn’t mean nations as much as it means peoples in Matt 28.19.  Many choose to translate it “gentiles” and in its frequent usages, the word can mean “gentiles”.  How does all this play into its modern applications.

From Matthew’s world, scholars commonly recognize that Matthew had written his story for Jewish audiences.  I wont rehash the argument in favor of a Jewish audience, but the command to go to gentiles had great significance in that world.  For Jesus, he was talking to Jewish disciples who would eventually go to gentiles.  For Matthew’s audience, they existed in a Jewish community and would eventually parallel the ministry of the original disciples by going to gentiles.  In those days, Jews and gentiles did not always mix well together.  The gentiles, for SOME Jews, would be considered the “other”.  Just like today, people preferred to socialize with those they felt comfortable.  The gentiles then would take them out of their comfort zone.  Jesus was not saying that the disciples should replace their ministry to the Jews with gentile ministry as much as they were to break out of their comfort zone and begin associating with the “others”.

For modern Christians, part of the Great Commission calls for breaking out of one’s comfort zone.  Christians shouldn’t always stick with their social economic class, race or other comfort zones.  They should fulfill the Great Commission by first befriending, advocating and eventually making disciples of the “others”.  This may require breaking out of traditional modes of faith community or religious buildings. This requires thinking, but first, we have to acknowledge that there’re those who fit the label of the “others” in our lives before we can think about how we can connect with them.

An Advent of Love? Reflection on the 140 + dead in Pakistan

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“I urge, the, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone …” 1 Timothy 2.1 (NIV)

 

As we approach Advent, tragedies occur all over the world.  Sydney saw its rare hostage crisis where one of my friends’ colleague lost her life. Equally tragic is the death of 141 people, mostly children, in Pakistan after the Talibans launched a revenge attack against a school.  Meanwhile, debates still continue among Christians on whether torture is a legitimate practice against enemies.  As I look around, people give different reactions through social media and newspaper op ed columns.  I notice something peculiar.

 

I notice that while Christians will continue to justify torture as a valid method against enemies, there’s some call for prayer for people in Australia.  However, there’s little to no call for prayer for the families of the dead in Pakistan.  While we construct logically sophisticated justification (even from scripture) on why we can torture, many of us Christians don’t even care to pray for these Pakistani victims.  Why?

 

I can think of thousands of reasons, but I bet one glaring reason is the way we western Christians think of the world.  Sydney, Australia, a city that deserves our prayer, is western enough.  After all, the Aussies are “better” allies than the Pakistanis.  So we pray for them but not the Pakistanis.  The Pakistanis belong to the “other”. In fact, aren’t all Pakistanis Muslims and if so (I’m not saying that they are), aren’t they are political enemies?  If their children die, they can go straight to hell where our enemies belong.  This simplistic and warped worldview has colored our priorities to the degree that it has affected the way we pray and the way we worship.  While we shout in favor of separation of church and state, our politics continue to cloud our judgment and more importantly, our spirituality.

 

In our response towards crisis and in our prayer life, we demonstrate the kind of value we hold.  Actually, many may come up with thousands of verses to justify this and that, but some verses like the one I quoted above is straightforward as part of the Christian worship. If you don’t believe it and can read Chinese, go read my three works on the Pastoral Letters.  If you don’t believe me, go read some commentaries on 1 Timothy.  In this case, our worldview causes us to make disgusting, xenophobic and worst of all, anti-Christian choices, right in our worship. This begs the question whether our ethics matches the kind of God we worship. This is an important concept to contemplate during Advent or any other time. Do we even worship the same God the author of 1 Timothy worshipped or do we worship some other version of God?  Before we can heal the world, perhaps we need healing first.

The Lord’s Army in Hong Kong? A Blasphemous Prayer!

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13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Luke 2.13-14 (NIV)

 

I’m usually quite tolerant of all kinds of prayers because after all prayers represent where we are in our spiritual journey and sometimes we take some detours, but certain detours are simply paths to destruction.  This week gives us such a prayer on the first Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of hope.

 

Let me summarize the whats app screen capture of a prayer from the 611 church membership.  I saw this on a friend’s Facebook and I simply couldn’t believe my eyes.  It says something like this.  “I just heard the sharing of a Christian lady cop. Today through the Spirit’s guidance, we have decided to do a prayer walk around the police HQ so that the Lord’s Army (HK police) would have greater power to clear protesters and lessen the bloodshed.

 

I just saw the wonderful news of the police clearing the sites.  We thank our God the heavenly Father’s miraculous power that enables the police to use the least amount of force to clear the site.  Our heavenly Father watches over HK.  We continue to pray for a peaceful life in HK…”

 

Besides the lack of factual accuracy to this entire prayer about the “least amount of force,” the description of HK police as the Lord’s Army simply curses rather than blesses HK.  I’ve often say that the zealous ignoramus does more damage than the cold intellectual.  This case is such a perfect illustration.

 

At best, we simply can’t sustain the believe based on biblical evidence that the HK police is the Lord’s Army.  Even at their best behavior, they can’t qualify as the Lord’s Army. There’s nowhere in Scripture that the Lord’s Army is equated to any kind of human security force.

 

Since it is the Advent Sunday of hope this first Advent Sunday, let me look at one place where the Lord’s Army did appear in the NT.  Luke 2.13-14 record a heavenly host parsing God for the great event that was the first Christmas.  The heavenly host joining with the present angels were praising God.  In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (aka Old Testament), the word for “host” can be descriptive of army in the heavenly realm (e.g. 1 Kings 22.19) sometimes being falsely worshipped by idol worshipping kings (e.g. 2. Chron. 33.3, 5).  In Luke 2, these angels celebrated the fact that God had chosen His first witnesses to be the poor shepherds so that the poor would receive the gospel of Jesus’ birth.  In other words, Jesus’ birth was praiseworthy because he had eliminated the disparity between social economic classes.  In fact, he favored those who were poor.

 

Let’s look now at the irony of this entire prayer being said on the eve of the first Sunday of Advent.  The protest of HK is precisely trying to eliminate the disparity between the social economic classes.  This first Advent Sunday is called the Sunday of hope.  Such a prayer murders hope.  By viewing the police force as the Lord’s Army as they cleared up a movement that has sprinkles of the message from the first Christmas, the prayer is a blasphemy against the very spirit of Advent.  It is an unacceptable prayer.

 

Will the HK police be the Lord’s Army?  It won’t even come close until the entire police force joins force to praise God for His work to break down social economic barriers.  Clearing up the protest site and creating further obstruction of local businesses may do the very opposite!  James 5.16 says that The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective in healing.  In this present situation, the prayer of an ignorant person is powerful and effective too in destroying any hope for human dignity.  A more appropriate prayer perhaps on this Sunday is an imprecatory prayer against all oppressive forces.  If you don’t want to pray the imprecatory prayer, let me share something positive from my church today as my family lights the Advent candle and read the following words. 

 

1st Sunday in Advent:

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the Sundayof Hope. Our hope is in God, and in his son Jesus Christ. He is the one appointed by God to be judge of all things, and he is the one through whom God has promised to save and redeem his people. And so we put our hope in Him as Savior and Lord.

 

The words of the prophet Isaiah, from Isaiah 9:5-7:

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this.

 

We light this candle today to remind us that Jesus, the one who is given, whose kingdom will have no end…that he is our hope and the hope of the world.

 

Prayer: O God of Hope, Emmanuel, God with Us – we pray that you would send your light into our hearts at this time. Help us to live as hope-filled people, trusting in Jesus every day. Live in us and help us to live in you. By the power of the Holy Spirit, transform us so that our lives, our worship, our celebration, our time of preparation, may be pleasing unto you – both now, and forevermore. Amen.

 

PS. I realize that the prayer may not represent the official position of the 611 church in HK. I would however say that those in teaching leadership need to take up their mantle of the spiritual educator so that this kind of curse no longer lands on our suffering society.

Sample Scriptural Manipulation by the Western Religious Right (IV) – The Problem with Immigration and Ex. 23.9, Lev. 19.33, Dt. 10.19

“Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt.” Exodus 23.9 (NIV)

 

This week, I continue to continue my series on evangelical Bible abuse.  I’ve decided to take a little break from talking about HK to complete this series.  I’ve read a popular and famous American systematic theologian (I loosely apply that term to him because many consider him one) on his take on politics and the Bible.  I’m going to deal with one issue he talks about in order to illustrate how tough it is to use the Bible to support your own agenda while opposing agenda of others.

 

Meaning

 

To start with, I have a very simple question to ask.  What if the Bible does not support my agenda? This author’s answer is simple. He can simply put in bold print “We have a very different situation today.” Now in principle, that is a good thing to do not with verses that do not agree with our conviction but to do that with every verse in the Bible. First we should examine the meaning of one verse he quotes. I would work with a few more verses simply because they often are read within the same corpus by Christians as part of the first books of the Bible, but I”m limited by space here.

 

Ex. 23.9 is a repeated idea from the injunction at Ex. 22.20.  The contexts of two similar  injunctions are different in that Ex. 22 talks about the individual Israelite while Ex. 23 talks about those who were judges over Israel. Thus, the different context shows the universality of this injunction both at the individual level and the judicial level.  This injunction is about as absolute as they come within the Torah.  Ex. 23.6-8 talk about bribes and lies and Ex. 23.10-11 talk about the needy.  Thus, the injunction has the same weightiness as bearing false witnesses and oppressing the needy.  This is not something we can just shrug off as being “for them.”  The historical situation tells us that Israel had always had needy people, some Hebrew and some foreigners.  This ongoing historical situation doesn’t just apply to the Exodus but ran all the way to the exile period.  The major difference however is that the political system of that time was different than today.

 

As we have already seen, the situations are indeed very different today than those days. Those days, the Bible had theocracy. Even within theocracy however, the determining factor for theocracy is whether the alien was willing to live within the covenant religion of Israel. Due to the fact that religion was part of Israel’s law, it was a requirement.  Is our law based on a covenant religion?

 

Even without the covenant religion of the ancient Israel, we can at least draw the conclusion that helping the foreigner ranks right up there with being truthful (which we surely can’t make situational) or helping the needy (which most of us can’t make situation with a clear conscience).  The tension then is between what was particular and what was universal.

 

Consequences for Misunderstanding

 

Since this theologian speaks against any kind of help for illegal immigrants, he uses the least amount of scripture to support whatever cause he wants mainly because scripture does not support much of what he is saying. He tries to cite scholarly studies that support the closing of border in Israel’s history to prove that border was indeed God’s will. The trouble with that is whether anything from Israel’s politics back then could be applicable to today’s America. If he sincerely believes that we have a very different situation today (and he is right), why would he cite the border situation back from ancient Israel? The fact of border in Israel was due to the importance of keeping the Israelites together due to their ideally homogeneous faith. We have no such situation today in our multi-faith and pluralistic society (unless he still insists that we’re a Christian nation, which he seems to also insist and that we’re still a homogeneous society).

 

The theologian’s logic goes further off track when he insists that closing the border and insisting simulation is the perfect solution. Without a doubt, as an American, I believe we have to deport escaped criminals but we do that with all the other countries anyway. I understand some of my readers are going to object to what I say as naïve liberal nonsense, but from a moral point of view, the whole idea of closing border is problematic to US history. At one point, American land belonged to the Native Americans. Imagine if the Native Americans decided that it was a bad idea to help the colonists in Virginia Colony as well as the Plymouth Colony survive and just let them starve to death. Imagine worse. Imagine if they decided to “close the border” and just kill all white men as trespassers. IF they had a closed-border policy, America wouldn’t be what it is now. The original spirit of this nation versus the spirit represented by this theologian is at variance. No matter how he justifies himself, his stance is basically historically illogical. The immigration situation in the US today is less than best, but his solution is simply untenable from an ethical and biblical point of view.

 

Some of his other steps are probably helpful in terms of practical application: teaching children to learn English to help assimilate, helping illegal immigrants to gain legal status, a compassionate path to move from illegal to legal immigration. These are all practical steps, but some of his other steps simply cannot be ethically and historically sound even if they work (and I doubt that they do).

 

At the same time, there’re issues that these verses do not deal with either. The greater idea of justice needs to be dealt with as well. For example, when funding goes to helping illegal immigrants, many of our shrinking middle class are feeling the impact of cut government spending to help the locals that are in need. People like injured veterans and honest citizens who hold several jobs to make ends meet will have great need as well. How about the funding to schools that are underprivileged even if those who are affected are honest citizens working their hardest to make ends meet. In all this, where would the discussion about greedy rich who are cheating the system? True justice is fluid, nuanced, prioritized and even gradated. These and many other topics are all justice issues that can’t be solved simply by appealing to the text that seems to support us while distancing ourselves from texts that do not support us and shout, “We simply have a different situation today.” No, ALL biblical situations are different, not just the select few.  If you appeal to history, you can’t have your historical cake and eat it too.

 

As I said before, the problem is not the biblical text. The problem is the interpreter.

 

More Cheap Unity? Truth that Divides!: 2 Corinthians 11.24, Paul, and the Subversive Gospel

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Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 

2 Corinthians 11.24 (NIV)

 

It is a well-known fact that I love reading the writings of Jesus scholar Larry Hurtado. His latest blog interaction with the work of Paula Fredriksen intrigues me, not only because her work was widely cited in my book on Paul in Chinese, but because of its implications for many HK churches, especially in light of the further call for harmony and tolerance for another fake election by the Anglican provincial secretary on HK TVB. I will cite below what Fredriksen claims from Hurtado’s blog. At some near future point, I will read her work in its entirety at which point I can give it a fair reading.

 

“In a recent publication, she probes the matter by first addressing Paul’s references to being on the receiving end of floggings by fellow Jews (five times) in the course of his Gentile mission (2 Corinthians 11:24).[2] Her cogent hypothesis is essentially this: Paul required his pagan converts to withdraw from worshipping the gods of the Roman world. Given the place and significance of the gods in Roman-era life, this would have generated serious tensions with the larger pagan community. As he identified himself as a Jew and linked up with Jewish communities in the various diaspora cities where he established early assemblies of Jesus-followers (ekklesias), these Jewish communities could have feared that they would bear the brunt of these tensions. So, Paul was meted out synagogue discipline in the form of the 39 lashes as punishment on several occasions (he mentions five).”

 

If what Fredriksen says is true, then Paul was not punished because he preached the gospel as people traditionally believe, but because the gospel Paul preached caused disharmony both with society and within the synagogue system. Let’s think about the current culture of the HK mega-churches that tend to speak for oppressive government policies. The best example is from one church where members who opposed oppressive governmental policies would be punished by having their memberships revoked from the church. Other less severe but equally misleading responses would be to call for harmony at all costs without adequate discussion on the issues that divide.

 

In essence, if Fredriksen’s claim is true, then some churches behave more like Paul’s Jewish oppositions than Paul. Paul has already shown that the gospel is not mainly meant to cause harmony. Truth doesn’t necessarily harmonize. Quite often in Paul’s ministry, it confronted and divided. When people point out falsehood, the church’s job is not to call for harmony but to call for discussion, circumspection and introspection or even repentance. False harmony punishes the wrong people and in the long run ruins lives. Getting truth right is tough.  Living truth out is even tougher.  It takes prioritizing ideas and conflict, just like Paul did in his life.  It takes tough struggles over issue rather than a simplistic call for cheap unity while covering over the holes in our imperfect ideals.  The only question to ask of such churches is this, “What kind of faith do we hold when we behave more like Paul’s opposition than Paul?”

Cheap Unity Again?: 2 Corinthians 6.14 and Occupy HK

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14 Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? 15 What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? 16 What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said:

“I will live with them
    and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.”

17 Therefore,

“Come out from them
    and be separate,
says the Lord.
Touch no unclean thing,
    and I will receive you.”

18 And,

“I will be a Father to you,
    and you will be my sons and daughters,
says the Lord Almighty.” 2 Corinthians 6.14-18 (NIV)

I’m going to blog about chapter 18 of my book. I’ve already blogged about it before as a negative example for how to use scripture. In my book, I’ve already established that the passage was not about marriage between believers and unbelievers. Rather, it is about unity between radically different value systems within the church possibly propagated by different parties. I believe this passage has huge implications for HK in the present climate among SOME pastors to call for unity. The Chinese Christian blog sphere also lit up with discontent and outrage.  I believe Paul’s teaching prohibits the church from a compromised unity.  In a situation where black and white are not neutralized by heavy shades of grey, perhaps, unity is not the answer, as we shall see below.

 

The passage talks about being yoked together possibly borrowing from farming practice of putting two different animals together to plow. In this metaphor, Paul was talking about working together with unbelievers, but was Paul’s writing a total prohibition on working with unbelievers? I don’t believe so. The subsequent verses show that certain anti-Christian results that came from working with unbelievers such as idolatry. In other words, you can’t work with unbelievers if the results go against the fundamentals of Christian value. For believers who may be tempted to link themselves to such anti-Christian values, they ought to separate themselves. This is the essence of Paul’s message. Let’s look at the HK situation.

 

The fault line between the two parties in the church is political where one party sides with the government and the other does not. Before we call for reconciliation and unity, let’s see what reconciliation consists of. The most successful example of recent history is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South African abolition of Apartheid. In fact, this bloodless revolution has caused other countries to form TRC’s, countries as varied as Colombia, Nigeria, Canada and so on. In reconciliation, those who are wrong do not get an easy escape. They confess that they’re wrong not because they hold a different opinion and reject others’ opinions, but because they actually hold the WRONG opinion about race and politics and must confess their falsehood. Bring that to HK. Can anyone honestly say that siding with the government that lies repeatedly to its own people is RIGHT? Is oppression and dishonesty part of our Christian value system?  We don’t need to sweep rubbish under the table right now. We need separation from lies. We need truth, even if that truth tears our church asunder.  This recent protest movement has become the mirror in the church to show where everyone stands in relation of oppression and dishonesty. We need those who have supported lies in the faith community to 1) confess their sins 2) to separate from such anti-Christian values. The preachers from those rich and large churches who have sided with governmental oppression should be the first to come out and confess their sins! I dare them to be an example to the flock by following Paul’s advice.

 

IF our church leaders are willing to take such harsh and courageous steps the way Desmond Tutu did, I’m all in favor of reconciliation and unity. Otherwise, count me out! So, if you want a Christian way to do unity and reconciliation, read, meditate and apply 2 Corinthians 6.14 for its real meaning instead of going for cheap unity because cheap unity will create more injury in the long run. So, for now, give me a break from this cheap unity talk because such unity is not just untenable; it’s immoral.

 

As I always say, the texts are not at fault. The interpreter is!

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